According to California authorities a fire has broken out at an Oakland warehouse where people were having a party. USA TODAY NETWORK
OAKLAND — At least nine people are dead and as many as two-dozen others also may have perished in a massive fire that broke out late Friday in an Oakland warehouse and artists collective in what Mayor Libby Schaaf on Saturday called a “terrible tragedy.”
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ray Kelly said it could take at least 48 hours to tally the number of casualties because of the continuing danger posed to firefighters by the unstable and charred remains of the structure in the city’s Fruitvale district. The fire, the worst in Oakland in years, broke out during an electronic music party at the warehouse, which had illegally been turned into artists studios and living spaces.
At a late-night press conference, Kelly said nine bodies recovered from the rubble had been sent to the coroner’s office for identification, and that authorities had been able to locate several dozen missing people. He said recovery efforts will continue slowly through the night because of darkness and the unstable infrastructure of the charred building.
“We have to move slow and judiciously,” Kelly said. “We know there are bodies in there that we cannot get to. … We don’t know how many people were inside when this happened.”
A few hours earlier, Kelly said firefighters had removed four of the nine bodies officials could see when they went into the entrance of the building. These were being fingerprinted, and Oakland officials were working quickly to identify them for the anxious families who are awaiting word of their loved ones.
The Oakland Fire Department is bringing in tractors, bulldozers, trucks and a crane Saturday night to get into the ruined building in a search for the bodies of the dead.
“We’re going to have to cut a hole through the building. It’s blocked at the entrance so we have to gain access on the other side,” Kelly said.
“It’s very twisted debris in there. There are wires and beams and wood. It’s all fallen in on itself. We’re thinking about bringing in cadaver dogs and robots to get into all the crevices,” he said.
“This is a devastating scene,” the mayor said at a briefing Saturday afternoon at a makeshift podium within sight of the building, adding that the investigation and recovery effort would be a “complex” undertaking.
Schaaf said she had met earlier Saturday with a roomful of people still searching for loved ones but could not say exactly how many may have perished in the blaze.
“It was painful to tell them that it will take a considerable amount of time” to determine the number of victims, Schaaf said. “Our focus right now is on the victims and their families and ensuring that we have a full accounting for everyone who was impacted by this tragedy.”
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told reporters that most of the dead were found on the second floor of the building. She said it took about five hours to put out the blaze in the building, which did not appear to have sprinklers. The building didn’t have a clear exit path, she said.
Pre-fire investigation into safety
The ground floor of the structure had been partitioned into several artist studios and was packed with furniture, mannequins and other objects, said Assistant Fire Chief Mark Hoffman
“It was just a labyrinth of little areas,” he said.
Firefighters were only able to get in about 20 yards before they had to pull back before the building itself was too unsafe. “The walls were moving,” Hoffman said.
Firefighters worked to shore up the building so they could safely search for bodies. The search was able to get underway about 3:30 p.m. Saturday but will likely take days, Schaaf said.
City officials confirmed Saturday that building authorities had opened an investigation just last month into complaints about the safety of the structure. That inquiry was ongoing when the fire struck.
An inspector from Oakland’s Department of Planning had attempted to enter the building on Nov. 17 in response to complaints of illegal building and blight in the lot next door, but was unable to get in, Oakland’s Planning and Building Director Darin Ranelletti said Saturday.
Whether the inspector couldn’t get in because he was refused entrance or simply because no one was at home wasn’t immediately known.
Fire officials said the search of the building was stymied when the roof collapsed. Because of the precarious state of the structure, officials with the coroner’s office was unable to begin recovering bodies until nearly seven hours after the fire struck. The scent of the smoldering building could be detected from blocks away Saturday afternoon.
“One of the issues was that leading up to the second floor there was only one way up and down,” Reed told reporters. “It was my understanding that the stairwell was kind of makeshift, that they put it together with pallets.”
Around 1:30 p.m., firefighters began unloading lumber to the building to shore up dangerously damaged walls and ceilings so crews could continue the gruesome task of searching for bodies in the charred remains of the two-story stucco structure.
Drones launched to find victims
Kelly said investigators had launched drones with thermal imaging capability over the gutted building to help officials find additional victims.
“Our focus right now is on the victims and their families and ensuring that we have a full accounting for everyone who was impacted by this tragedy.”
One witness who escaped the blaze, Bob Mule, told the East Bay Times that a friend hurt himself and asked for help getting out. Mule said he tried, but couldn’t do it.
“It was too hot, too much smoke; I had to get out of there,” said Mule, a photographer and artist who lives in the building and suffered minor burns. “I literally felt my skin peeling and my lungs being suffocated by smoke. I couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work.”
About 50 people are believed to have been inside the building at the time of the blaze, according to fire department officials. Kelly said most of the victims were believed to be in their 20s and 30s, and some were thought to be visitors from other countries.
Kelly said the investigation will be slow, because of the state of the scene.
“It’s just a task to get through the front door with all the debris and wreckage that’s there,” Kelly said. “We’re slowly making our way in, and we have to go systematically because any misstep on the part of our people could mean they get injured or fall through a floor or have something fall on top of them.”
An electronic-music party dubbed Golden Donna 100% Silk was set for Friday night at the warehouse, called “The Ghost Ship” by the artists who used it. Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the warehouse, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the building “has been an issue for a number of years.”
“People have been living inside, and the neighbors have complained about it,” he said. “Some of these young people that were in there were underage. They frequently had parties there.”
Friends and family took to social media Saturday to post and seek information on loved ones who might have been there.The sheriff’s office has set up a family notification and assistance center at the Alameda County Building. Authorities were asking family and friends who believe they have loved ones who may have been in the warehouse to contact the sheriff’s department.
“We are hoping for the best,” Terry Ewing, whose girlfriend was planning on attending the party and was among the missing, told the Associated Press.
The Fruitvale neighborhood, where the building is located, has long been a heavily Latino area.
The streets are lined with taco shops and Latin grocery stores and shops for sending money and goods to various countries in Central and South America. It also is home to increasing numbers of artists, musicians and others, of all races and ethnicities many of whom have been priced out of San Francisco. Whether the people who lived in the units in the building’s second floor were new to the area or were long-time residents wasn’t known.
Hushed groups of neighbors gathered at the area in front of the building where it was possible to see the soot-blackened front over the police tape, mostly speaking in Spanish.
Blessed Vorgar, 23, has lived two blocks from the building since she was 12.
“God have mercy on them,” she said of those who had died.
Contributing: Jon Swartz in San Mateo, Calif.
Powered by WPeMatico